MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team is preparing as if Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will be healthy enough to play Saturday.
In fact, the Gophers are hoping he does.
“As a team, we want him to play,” safety Brock Vereen said. “You want to play a team when they’re at their best.”
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Robinson is the Wolverines’ dual-threat quarterback with the breakaway speed and ankle-busting juke moves that make him one of the top runners in the Big Ten. The speedy senior averages 283.1 total yards per game, second in the conference behind only Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. Robinson is third in the Big Ten in rushing among all players, racking up 118.2 yards per game on the ground.
But Robinson was dinged up last weekend in Michigan’s loss to Nebraska. He suffered an elbow injury late in the first half and did not return as the Wolverines fell, 23-9, to the Cornhuskers.
Reports out of Ann Arbor early this week are that wide receiver Devin Gardner has taken some reps at quarterback for the Wolverines. Gardner was a backup quarterback for two years before moving to receiver. Robinson’s backup this season, freshman Russell Bellomy, was just 3-for-16 with three interceptions when he entered last Saturday’s game against Nebraska in place of the injured Robinson.
The Wolverines have options at quarterback if Robinson can’t go, but the Gophers believe he’ll be under center Saturday.
“We’re just going to prepare for Michigan like Denard Robinson is going to play the game,” said Minnesota cornerback Troy Stoudermire. “We’re going to take on the challenge.”
And it will indeed be a challenge for the Gophers, whose rushing defense is among the worst in the Big Ten. Minnesota has allowed 178.0 yards rushing per game, third-most in the conference. Last weekend, Purdue ran for 183 yards in its loss to the Gophers. Before that, Northwestern and Wisconsin combined for more than 500 rushing yards in a pair of Minnesota losses.
When the Gophers and Wolverines squared off last year in Ann Arbor, Minnesota kept Robinson relatively in check. He carried the ball just six times for 51 yards and a touchdown. This season, though, Robinson has had four games of 100 or more rushing yards — and two games in which he ran for more than 200 yards.
“There’s nobody like him,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “If you haven’t seen him play … he’s worth going to the stadium to see. He’s electrifying.”
Before the season started, Robinson was quoted as saying he could beat Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt in a 40-yard dash. Bolt, of course, is regarded as the fastest man in the world and is a six-time Olympic gold medalist.
It’s a race that probably won’t happen, so college football fans will have to speculate how Robinson would fare against Bolt. Meanwhile, the Gophers are hoping that Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium doesn’t turn into a track meet for Robinson and the Wolverines.
“There are not many people that say they’ll challenge Bolt in the 40,” Kill said. “He’s that explosive of a kid. He’ll just make you look bad.”
Trying to game plan for a player of Robinson’s caliber isn’t easy. Kill admits that the Gophers don’t have anyone who can simulate Robinson’s speed.
“You try, but I don’t think you can. That is the hard thing,” Kill said. “You can’t simulate somebody with that much speed and quickness. … He’s a low 4.3 (40-yard dash) guy. There aren’t many people like that around. I don’t know how fast (Vikings wide receiver) Percy Harvin is, but it’s like that. I mean, he gets out of there and it’s over.
“So you try to do everything you can to simulate it, but you’re never going to simulate what he’s like on game day. You better defensively do everything you can to try to keep the ball out of his hands and keep him boxed in. Don’t give him any running lanes.”
Though Minnesota went up against Robinson last season, the Gophers have yet to face a quarterback with a similar running ability this season.
If Robinson can get into the second level of Minnesota’s defense — which he often does against opponents — the pressure will be on the secondary to make plays and prevent Robinson from finding the end zone.
“The biggest thing you focus on is being under control. You play against a guy that fast and it makes you run just as fast,” Vereen said. “But you have to have control to be able to tackle him. When he breaks tackles, when he jukes people out, that’s what he’s good at is getting you off-balance, getting you out of position. It just comes back down to the fundamentals.”
As for Robinson’s arm? It’s certainly not as dangerous as his legs. His 164.9 passing yards per game rank seventh in the Big Ten. His 127.4 pass efficiency rating puts him eighth in the conference. He’s had three games of 200 passing yards or more this season but none since Big Ten play started.
Still, Minnesota knows it can’t just focus on Robinson’s rushing ability.
“They have a great record. They’re a great team,” Vereen said. “So he’s obviously a good passer, too.”